August 27, 2015
By Andy Grimm
Santos Alvarado last week sat in the New Orleans City Council chambers during a presentation on the city's progress in the decade since Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed.
Alvarado had witnessed many of the benchmarks first-hand. In October 2005, he arrived in New Orleans, from Honduras by way of Dallas, in a crew of Latino men recruited by a demolition contractor desperate for workers willing to do the back-breaking labor of clearing debris.
Alvarado saw empty streets and darkened, sodden buildings — and some of the best paychecks of his career as an itinerant worker. A decade later, he said he's proud to drive past schools and hospitals where he worked, now on his way to construction jobs on new buildings.
Alongside members of the Congress of Day Laborers, an immigrants-rights group that formed not long after the storm, Alvarado was on hand at the Council meeting for the next item on the agenda: A series of resolutions honoring groups that aided New Orleans' recovery.
"It feels good," Alvarado said, through a translator, as he held a framed copy of a council resolution on the steps of City Hall.
"It's the first time we've had recognition like this for what we did to help rebuilding the city. But I hope they understand how much needs to be done to support the workers."
'How do the tacos help the gumbo?'
Rising population numbers and rebounding tax base aside, the influx of Hispanic residents to southeast Louisiana since 2005 has been one of the most significant demographic shifts of the post-Katrina decade.
An estimated 100,000 Hispanics came to metro New Orleans in the months after the storm, and many have joined Alvarado in putting down stakes in the region. While the population of the region as a whole remains at about 80 percent of pre-Katrina levels, the Latino population has nearly doubled since the storm.
The swift arrival of so many Hispanics -- while more than half of the region's population was displaced -- led to handwringing among longtime residents almost immediately.
In the early days of the rebuilding, then-Mayor Ray Nagin asked business leaders how to prevent the city from being "overrun by Mexican workers." Jefferson Parish officials adopted regulations that drove off most of the Latino-owned "taco trucks" that arrived not long after the workers.
New Orleans leaders considered similar measures, and during a debate about restoring the local restaurant economy then-council president Oliver Thomas asked, "how do the tacos help the gumbo?"
More recently, as New Orleans Police has pulled back from cooperating with federal immigration raids and has instructed officers not to question people about their immigration status, Gov. Bobby Jindal has accused city leaders of making New Orleans a "sanctuary city" for undocumented immigrants.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Republican front-runner in the gubernatorial race, has proposed withholding federal money for so-called "sanctuary cities."
Record number of deportations
Immigration enforcement data shows workers that were once actively recruited to come to New Orleans — and immigration enforcement was relaxed immediately after Katrina — have faced challenges if they want to stay. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Louisiana is home to an estimated 55,000 undocumented immigrants, about a third of the 173,000 Hispanics in the state.
Despite having one of the smallest Latino populations in the U.S., the state's immigration courts are among the busiest in the nation, a trend that began after Katrina.
Deportation court dockets in Louisiana swelled rapidly after 2005 and have remained high. In 2011, deportation proceedings across the state totaled 10,231 cases — more than three times the number filed in 2004. The number of cases fell back after 2011, but it's still hovering at about double pre-Katrina numbers.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox attributed some of the increase post-Katrina to the large number of immigrants who entered the state after the storm, but noted that Louisiana's immigration courts also process people who have been arrested from as far away as Chicago.
Only Texas, Arizona and California — all states that share a border with Mexico — make more immigration arrests than Louisiana, according to an analysis by the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice of data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Census.
Latinos protest ICE 'raids'
Activists say that ICE agents routinely conduct sweeps in metro New Orleans' areas where Latinos congregate, targeting and indiscriminately questioning and detaining people, an allegation Cox said is "categorically untrue."
"That does not happen," Cox said. He said ICE agents only target specific individuals identified as dangerous felons — typically seeking them out at their home or workplace -- though agents may use fingerprint scanners to verify the identity of people who are present when they make an arrest.
About 85 percent of people removed by ICE agents nationwide meet agency criteria as dangerous felons, Cox said.
But advocates in New Orleans have protested ICE raids that they claim amount to racial profiling. Agents randomly accost brown-skinned people in the parking lots of churches and Hispanic grocery stores, and police in New Orleans and the suburbs were routinely asking Spanish-speaking people to provide immigration documentation during traffic stops, said Julie Mao, an attorney for the Workers' Center.
"There's no way to do that without racial profiling," she said. "You wouldn't ask for that kind of documentation from someone who wasn't Latino in the course of a traffic stop."
The NOPD no longer asks about immigration status, in part because of requirements for "bias-free policing" among the mandates of a federal consent decree that ordered sweeping reforms to the department, spokesman Tyler Gamble said.
While NOPD officers will backup ICE agents who are serving criminal warrants, the department does not participate in raids on homes simply because they are suspected of housing undocumented workers, Gamble said.
Jefferson hosts most Hispanics
But New Orleans is not where most metro area Hispanics live. Jefferson Parish has doubled the Hispanic population of Orleans Parish, as Jefferson's Latino population grew to nearly 60,000 by 2013, an almost 80 percent jump from 2000 figures.
That has put large demands on some government services. Jefferson Parish Public Schools this year enrolled 6,295 students in English language learner programs — geared toward students with limited English-speaking ability. That's a 40-percent increase from 2008 enrollment, said Karina Castillo, who was appointed to head up the ELL program last year.
Castillo's duties in the last year also involved negotiating with the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Department of Education, to resolve complaints filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Hispanic students.
Under terms of the settlement, the district this year will provide documents in Spanish and increase Spanish-speaking support staff, and stop requiring students and their parents to provide Social Security numbers in order to enroll and graduate, said SPLC attorney Jennifer Coco.
Latino influx slows; immigrants put down roots
The pace of immigration to the region slowed as construction jobs have grown fewer, Madrigal said, although there was an uptick in recent years as a surge in violence in some Central American countries and a blight on their coffee crop prompted many immigrants to seek out relatives in southeast Louisiana's well-established Honduran and Salvadoran communities, said Dr. Vinicio Madrigal, a longtime Latino activist who has lived in Jefferson Parish since the 1980s.
Louisiana, which spent 40 years as a Spanish colony, has had a small Latino population for years, mostly Central Americans with roots in the area that date back to the early 1900s. The arrival of a new wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants after Katrina simply means Louisiana arriving late to an immigration debate that has been raging across the U.S. for decades, Madrigal said.
"The same things we are talking about today in Louisiana, they have been dealing with for years in Texas or Chicago," Madrigal. "These immigrants are helping rebuild, and build, this area."
As for how the tacos are helping the gumbo, the region has more restaurants today than it did in 2015, and Kenner, a city where the Hispanic share of the population has jumped from 14 percent to 23 in the post-Katrina decade, boasts a strip of Latin-themed restaurants and groceries on Williams Boulevard.
'It wouldn't have got done without them'
Immigrant workers say that wages have dropped as the bulk of Katrina restoration and demolition work was completed and housing construction has slowed.
Still, Laborers Union Local 769 has seen its membership increase markedly since the storm, and when the union needs to recruit new members, organizer Frank Cureil said he posts flyers in Hispanic grocery stores.
"We had a lot of our members that had to leave (after Katrina) and quite a few didn't come back," said Cureil, who said the union's Latino membership still comprises a smaller percentage than laborer's halls in states outside not in the Deep South.
"We had to change too. The makeup of construction workers in this country, a lot of those workers are Latino."
Alfred Marshall, a community activist in the B.W. Cooper neighborhood, said low-income New Orleanians viewed the wave of post-Katrina immigrants as a threat: they seemed to be taking low-wage jobs that had been the province of the city's African-American poor, and in some areas, they seemed to have physically replaced blacks who had been displaced by the storm.
When Marshall returned to the Cooper projects in 2006, most of the buildings were fenced off, but he could see Latino workers beyond the fences doing restoration work — and sometimes sleeping in units that former residents had been locked out of.
"We looked across the street, and nobody that looked like us was working over there," recalled Marshall. "Hell yeah, I was hostile. You'd see a guy there living in your house, and sometimes he'd have took your clothes."
Marshall led protests that eventually won rehab jobs for former Cooper residents, and working side-by-side with Latinos gradually changed his mind — not least because he and other black co-workers saw that Latino workers seemed also to be persecuted by police and immigration officials.
"Ten years ago, I would make the statement: They (Latinos) need to go," Marshall said. "Now I see, they have changed the city. They rebuilt the city, the majority of the work was done by Latino workers. It wouldn't have got done without them."